The Hindu religion is rich with depictions of gods and goddesses, and provides imagery with deep symbolic significance and meaning. A complex mythology extends to all aspects of a deity’s portrayal, including their mounts or vahanas. Each deity’s mount makes a symbolic reference to the positive aspects of that deity, while at the same time they symbolize negative aspects that the deity takes control of. As such, “the animal symbol, placed beneath, is interpreted as carrying the human figure…It is a duplicate-representation of the energy and character of the god” (Zimmer 70). Most mounts are in the form of animals which exist on the plane of the Earth; thus these creatures are seen as being the physical, earthen embodiment of their god or goddess counterpart. Animals that are linked to the gods and goddesses are considered important to Hindus, and have been cherished as symbols of virtue and value (Chatterjee 27). The symbolic associations of certain animals, identified as mounts, coupled with the popular tropes, archetypes, and idiomatic storytelling of the Hindu tradition, serves to communicate meaning through representations and iconography.
Some of the vahanas of Hindu mythology are ranked more important than others, some even gaining the status of deities themselves. Over time a vahana can itself become, “a great object of Hindu veneration” (Chatterjee 27). Some vahanas become the symbolic manifestation of a certain aspect of a deity’s personality. The mahisa, or buffalo mount, symbolizes death and is thus represented as the mount of Yama, the Lord of Death (Bunce: 171). The animal manifestation of the mount becomes symbolically significant in the physical realm. For some deities, like Brahma, whose mount is a wild goose, or gander, “these vehicles or mounts are manifestations on the animal plane of the divine individual themselves. The gander is the animal mask of the creative principle, which is anthropomorphically embodied in Brahma. As such, it is a symbol of sovereign freedom through stainless spirituality” (Zimmer 48).
The general concept of vahanas serves to give symbolic complexity to a specific understanding of a deity, creating more deep and meaningful associations between popular Hindu icons and mythologies. Sometimes, out of these associations, grow myths or stories which permeate the relationships that Hindus have with their religious figures. Knowing the symbolic association between a deity and their mount can increase the level of depth and complexity that an individual gets out of hearing Hindu myths, which often contain multiple layers of symbolic meanings to be interpreted. For instance, the vahana of Agni—who is understood to be both the god of fire and the physical manifestation of fire itself—is a ram, which is considered the “bodily form of penance” (Bunce 54). This symbolic association between Agni and penance is deeply rooted in the daily practice of Hindus, as they practice their own forms of penance, puja, and yogas which involve the use of fire.
It is through the symbolic representation of the gods and goddesses that Hindus connect the divine to their own physical existence. It is through these representative symbols, which have real-world counterparts, that morality can be discussed in ways that are external to the body, located instead in codified mythology which can be subjectively interpreted. The personified attributes of the gods and goddesses, which are extended to their mounts, become objects of worship and desire for Hindus. For example, Siva’s mount is Nandi, a docile bull who is considered a symbol of dharma; dharma being the proper conduct one learns to follow and practice in their life. Thus, Nandi represents many good qualities of Siva which individual Hindus wish to embody: “Siva’s ability to burn away sloth, ignorance and evil, ensures the constant renewal of fertility, correct motivation, and religious aspiration; thus he perpetuates the condition in which all levels of dharma can flourish” (Chatterjee 28). Because one of the features of the Hindu faith is the ability to worship different deities for different reasons, the intense symbolic meaning that is attached to certain representations of a deity can be invoked for different reasons. This means that when the Nandi is present in a depiction of Siva, he is signalling or alluding to a layer of meaning that would not be present without him.
The elephant-headed god Ganesa is often depicted sitting atop a mouse. “His vahana is a mouse and he himself represents the Elephant, thus it portrays that they can live together happily” (Chatterjee 26). This serves to teach something with its symbols, while also revealing a subtlety about the personality of Ganesa. Other associations provide lessons and insight on how to live your life, such as the relationship between Visnu and his griffon-like, half man and half eagle mount, Garuda, who is considered the personification of Vedic knowledge. In Hindu mythology, though, Visnu is often associated with the cosmic serpent, which makes his story complex as he maintains the serpent’s natural enemy, the eagle, as his vahana. This comes to symbolize the synthesis of harmony and balance through conflict, which is considered to be one of the more important attributes of Visnu (Bunce 103). Furthermore, the inclusion of these symbols serves purpose in Hindu life by employing paradoxes through which, “the vital tensions of the world-process are brought into existence and maintained” (Zimmer 76).
This sort of tension between symbols comes up in anthropological discourse, and has often been thought to serve a vital function in the construction of culture (Erickson & Murphy 120). The understanding that is synthesized, both on the level of the individual and the collective, when paradoxes of religious iconography and storytelling are confronted, is where Hindu theology happens. Considering that Hinduism is a religion of both orthodoxy and orthopraxy, it relies on the daily practices of individuals to inform their correct ways of thinking, and the correct ways of forming a personal relationship with the gods. The symbolism of the gods, and the real-world accessibility of some of their mounts, which can actually exist on the same plane as humans, makes them tangible to people while also maintaining their status as sacred. This is an interesting feature of Hinduism, as it is often the case that the sacred is separated from the more mundane aspects of human existence. For Hindus though, symbolic reminders of the sacred permeate all aspects of life, including relationships with animals.
Also notable is the use of vahanas to solidify the representation of a specific god or goddess. Sometimes with the anthropomorphic icon of a deity, it can be hard to determine exactly which deity is being referenced, and what the context of that reference is. This is made easier through the use of symbols, like the specific objects that a god happens to be carrying in his or her hand(s). When a mount is added to a depiction of a deity, it makes it even easier to tell exactly who it is supposed to be, especially because part of the Hindu tradition is recognizing these symbolic associations and knowing the litany of icons which can be employed. When a deity is depicted then, “its reference becomes specified by the determinant, or parallel symbol, added underneath” (Zimmer 71).
REFERENCES & RELATED TOPICS
Bunce, Frederick W. (1997) A Dictionary of Buddhist and Hindu Iconography. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld Ltd.
Chatterjee, Gautam (1996) Sacred Hindu Symbols. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.
Erickson, Paul A., and Liam D. Murphy (2013) A History of Anthropological Theory. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Zimmer, Heinrich (1946) Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
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Article written by: Brittney Ruston (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.